I think of Pentecost as a transcendental holiday, a holiday when the familiar Christian story of Christ’s birth at Christmas and resurrection on Easter moves in another direction entirely (into the realm of pure spirit), as Christ appears to his apostles in a locked room, shining like the sun, and they begin speaking in tongues. It’s often pictured in religious art with little flames burning over the heads of the apostles. They are inspired, burning with new fervor. It’s a moment that breaks through the barriers of mundane reality.
In his book about the agrarian cults of Europe, Carlos Ginzburg says that Pentecost was a time when the women in certain villages in Rumania and Bulgaria gathered to communicate with those who had died. They would sprinkle themselves with water and certain herbs and fall into a trance. When they returned they spoke for the dead whom they had visited. This association of Pentecost with death is echoed in other countries where the day before Pentecost is set aside for visiting family graves. It seems to be a time when the walls between this world and the next are particularly thin.
Pentecost is also the Christian equivalent of May Day, falling as it does seven weeks after Easter (which is tied to Spring Equinox). So many customs associated with Pentecost (which also goes by the name of Whitsunday for the white color of the robes worn during the services) will seem familiar to those who celebrate May Day: decorating churches with greenery, church ales, and the election of a Whitsun King and Queen.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”